Marion Hughes | June 15, 2021
Like you, I ask myself this very same question. For me though, it wasn’t until 2013 during my tenth Ironman (IM) triathlon race, IM Wisconsin, that I was pressed to provide a thoughtful response. During this race, I was cycling downhill, which led into a 90-degree left hand turn. I had done this turn in numerous training rides before. But this was race day. I had bikers in front of me and beside me and I was moving fast. As I navigated the turn, my back wheel started to slip from under of me. I corrected but the bike didn’t respond. I murmured, “Oh, no.” And that was the last thing I remember.
I woke up an hour later as EMTs were placing me in an ambulance. I had a concussion and a broken clavicle. When the EMT noticed that I was coming to, he started to bark out questions. “What is your name?” “Where do you live?” “What is your date of birth?” My answers were immediate and accurate. Then he asked me the question that has haunted me for years since this incident. He asked me, “Why are you here?”
I paused. I was in a neck brace, staring up at the gray ambulance ceiling, thinking. There were no visual cues to help me answer that question. I couldn’t turn my head. I couldn’t see that I had biking shoes on. I couldn’t see that I was wearing my IM race bracelet. All I could see was the ambulance’s gray ceiling and I had no answer to the EMT’s question. I laid there in silence. It wasn’t until several years later that I was able to finally answer that question. And this is where my story begins…
In 2017, the culmination of all my hard work and possibility of qualifying for the IM Triathlon Kona Championships was coming true for me. I was healthy and physically fit. As I was putting on a jog bra to do my last 18 mile run before my race day, I saw it. I had lost 22 pounds leading up to this race, so it hadn’t been visible to me until now, at this very exact point in my training, racing and life. As large as a quarter, just under the breast nipple, there was a lump.
I knew it was something I needed to explore, but I had a race in two weeks. So I foolishly decided not do anything until after that race. I ended up placing sixth in my age group 50–54 at that IM finish. I was on a high. Believing that winning my age group and clinching that long awaited Kona slot was well within my reach. So not doing anything about the lump yet turned into not doing anything at all. As I regained some weight in the off season, the lump disappeared. Out of sight, and now out of mind.
February 2018 rolled around, and I needed to have my annual mammogram. At that visit the technician delayed my departure. The radiologist wanted to speak with me. I apparently had an area of suspicion and the radiologist recommended a biopsy. I explained that I just completed an IM triathlon and I was in fantastic shape. But the radiologist was persistent. So I reluctantly scheduled the biopsy. On March 21, 2018, I received the phone call informing me of the unthinkable diagnosis…I had breast cancer.
How could this happen? I was the healthiest person everyone knew. I did all the proper things to maintain good health. I had no breast cancer in my family history. I didn’t even have any major surgeries or illnesses throughout life. Yet, here I was at age 52 with breast cancer. I remember standing in the breast surgeon’s office after she explained to me that I would need a mastectomy. All I could think of was, “What is life worth living for now?”
Nonetheless, those around me said that my IMs prepared me for battling cancer, and unbeknownst to me I was about to find out how. I underwent a left breast mastectomy, reconstruction and recovery, which took me away from IM training and racing. I was devastated. Yet, I didn’t want to be sad. My IM training had taught me to focus on what I could control. I felt the only aspect of my life I now had control over was how I wanted to feel about this, and I didn’t want to cry anymore. So, I took a humorous approach to my situation. I threw the best damn post-mastectomy party ever. We played breast-themed games and ate breast-themed food all in honor of those who supported me.
I began the new year with my training plan, building my base, getting stronger, thinking about which race to do, and I even started dating… when the unimaginable happened. Despite taking anti-cancer medication, during a routine examination of my remaining right breast, the radiologist found cancer markers. My options included a couple of lumpectomies or a prophylactic mastectomy. In the previous year, cancer had taken me away from me what I loved most – training and racing. I didn’t want to be in a similar situation down the road with the remaining vulnerable breast tissue, so I made the very difficult decision and opted for a prophylactic mastectomy. This surgery, and again breast reconstruction and recovery, would sadly require another year away from IM training and racing.
This time around there were many nights where I cried in frustration and fear of never regaining my health or feeling happy again. I questioned my existence and purpose. “Why is this happening to me…again?” However, despite cancer robbing me of both my breasts, my strength and my endurance, my years of IM training and racing created and developed what I call my IM mind: a mind disciplined and focused, a mind capable of embracing the mental anguish and physical pain that I faced, a mind of a fierce fighter. With my IM mind I was able to turn the emotions of sorrow and hopelessness into fuel and I became a Girl on Fire, raging, yet patiently waiting for my time to rise again. This time, I no longer sought humor. I got angry…I got real angry. I worked out hard up until the day before my surgery. I wasn’t going to let cancer take my life from me. I even restarted dating within 2 weeks of my mastectomy. Yeah, I would show up to a date with just one boob. My IM mind prevented me from ever accepting defeat and surrendering to cancer.
Today, I am cancer-free and I am starting all over, once again. I am a two-time breast cancer survivor and an IM. My IM mind has been my strength and has seen me through my life’s darkest challenges. Like the lotus flower, I have emerged from beneath the muddy waters to unfurl my strength and all my beauty. Whether facing a grueling IM race or the horror of having breast cancer, undeniably, I am a Girl on Fire and a force to be reckoned with.
And I am now able to answer that question as to why I was there in that ambulance during that 2013 IM race and why I am here now. I am here to remind myself and to be an example to others that it’s not enough to just be physically active and leading a healthy lifestyle. Screenings are useful tools to detect and manage those conditions which are out of our control. Please be proactive and get your yearly screenings with the same fervor that you take care of your body.
I have finally returned to training and will raise funds for breast cancer research in conjunction with an IM race participation, IM Chattanooga, in September 2021. Early detection and treatment saved my life, so I am partnering with Prevent Cancer Foundation to globally increase awareness and inspire support for their vision—“Stop Cancer Before It Starts!” Follow my progress on Instagram at @Girl_on_Fire_20182019 and support my fundraising campaign here.